The 2020 NBA Draft stands to be the most unorthodox in its history, and this has nothing to do with what occurred between the lines. Due to the coronavirus pandemic the NBA has moved the draft back to October 16, with the draft lottery scheduled for August 20. What’s also of concern for many prospects, and the teams that could potentially draft them, is the yet-to-be-determined status of the NBA Draft Combine. Between that and a possible absence of in-person individual/group workouts, teams will be even more reliant upon game tape and scouting networks as they attempt to determine which players to select.
While the timing is never good when it comes to a worldwide health issue, this is especially problematic with regard to evaluating this year’s draft class. Unlike the 2019 crop, which boasted a clear top pick in Duke’s Zion Williamson, there are a host of players who can make that claim this spring/summer. And in the case of two of those players, point guard LaMelo Ball and center James Wiseman, they didn’t play much basketball before being shut down for either health (Ball) or NCAA (Wiseman) reasons.
Having looked at some of the top point and shooting guards in this class back in April, we’re finally back (and will revisit those positions in the near future). Today’s installment focuses on the center position, which is led by the aforementioned Wiseman. Note: The NCAA’s early withdrawal deadline was August 3, and the NBA's deadline is August 17.
1. James Wiseman (Memphis): The top of the 2020 draft class doesn’t lack for players who did not see much playing time this past season, and Wiseman is on that list. Due to NCAA issues he appeared in just three games at Memphis, with the toughest competition coming in a loss to Oregon. The 7-foot-1, 240-pound center averaged 19.7 points, 10.7 rebounds and 3.0 blocks per game, while shooting 76.9 percent from the field and 70.4 percent from the foul line.
Wiseman’s an athletically gifted big that runs the floor well, and he also displayed solid lateral movement which will be key when it comes to defending in pick-and-roll situations. A lot of his scoring was done in the paint, with just over 73 percent of his field goal attempts coming at the rim according to hoop-math.com. The offensive end of the floor, specifically whether or not Wiseman can expand his range enough to where he’s a dependable mid-range shooter, may be where the biggest questions lie when it comes to his NBA prospects. But there’s a lot to work with here, which is why Wiseman is projected to be a high lottery pick. If he can land with a team that doesn’t need him to be a focal point offensively, that would help with his growth.
2. Isaiah Stewart (Washington): While Stewart may not have the height that you tend to expect from a center, his physicality and 7-foot, 4-inch wingspan make up for that. During his lone season at Washington the 6-foot-9, 250-pound pivot averaged 17.0 points, 8.8 rebounds and 2.1 blocked shots per game, while shooting 57.0 percent from the field and 77.4 percent from the foul line. Stewart attempted just 20 3-pointers (making five), but he is a credible mid-range shooter. I wouldn’t compare him directly to former UCLA center Thomas Welsh, who was a proficient mid-range shooter at the start of his college career and was able to push that back into 3-point range over time. But the form and free throw work show that Stewart has the potential to be more of a threat in that regard.
Defensively, Stewart is good on the glass and as a rim protector, but it’s worth noting that he’ll have to do a lot more as a man-to-man defender than he did at Washington as the Huskies used a 2-3 zone for the majority of their defensive possessions. How well he adjusts defensively will be the key to Stewart’s NBA future, especially when it comes to the footwork required in ball-screen situations. He’s projected to be a mid-first round pick come October.
3. Daniel Oturu (Minnesota): After playing well as a freshman, Oturu was one of the most productive centers in college basketball last season. The 6-foot-9, 240-pound center posted averages of 20.1 points, 11.3 rebounds, 1.1 assists and 2.5 blocked shots per game in 2019-20, while shooting 56.3 percent from the field and 70.7 percent from the foul line. Oturu did have more freedom to attempt perimeter shots, as evidenced by the increase in 3-point shots from two as a freshman to 52 last season, and he made 36.5 percent of those shots.
Oturu boasts a 7-foot, 2-inch wingspan, which came in handy on the defensive end, but the important development for him as a sophomore was avoiding silly fouls. His average of 2.7 fouls committed per game was the same as the number from the 2018-19 campaign, but the timing of those fouls was far different. As a result Oturu averaged 33.9 minutes per last season, an improvement of just over 10 minutes (23.8 mpg as a freshman). After having 11 games in which he committed four fouls or more the season prior, Oturu got that number down to seven in 2019-20. Remaining disciplined as a defender will be a key for Oturu, as he may be asked to spend some time at the power forward position after playing the majority of his minutes at Minnesota in the center spot.
4. Aleksej Pokusevski (Olympiacos B): Face-up centers have become more commonplace in the NBA in recent seasons, and that could be role for Pokusevski to fill. A 7-footer, Pokusevski was listed at just 195 pounds this season, so he will likely need to add some weight/get stronger in preparation for the NBA. That being said, he’s comfortable on the perimeter and is capable playing off the dribble and as a distributor.
At the 2019 U-18 FIBA European Championships, Pokusevski averaged 10.0 points, 7.2 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 2.7 steals and 4.0 blocks per game, and with Olympiacos B he was responsible for 10.8 points, 7.9 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per game in 11 appearances. Given the skill set and frame Pokusevski may be a better fit at power forward than center, but even if that’s the case he will need to get stronger. The upside is certainly intriguing however, and will in all likelihood result in his being a first-round pick.
5. Zeke Nnaji (Arizona): Listed at 6-foot-11, 240 pounds, Nnaji is a high-motor big who moves well on both ends of the floor. That being said, he’s more of a positional defender than one who will produce consistently as a shot blocker. In addition to averaging 0.7 steals and 0.9 blocks per contest last season, Nnaji was responsible for 16.1 points, 8.6 rebounds and 0.8 assists in 30.7 minutes per. The field goal (57.0) and free throw (76.0) percentages were good, as Nnaji proved to be an effective finisher around the basket.
His activity created additional scoring opportunities as an offensive rebounder, and he was also a solid mid-range shooter. Defensively Nnaji was more effective when called upon in ball-screen situations than as a rim protector, and there are strides to be made as a rebounder as well. Nnaji’s a hard worker whose effort isn’t to be questioned, and that’s a good place to start when developing young talent.
6. Vernon Carey Jr. (Duke): Carey’s lone season at Duke was a very good one, as he was named ACC Freshman of the Year and also earned first team all-conference honors. The 6-foot-10, 270-pound big man averaged 17.8 points, 8.8 rebounds, 1.0 assists and 1.6 blocks per game, while shooting 57.7 percent from the field and 67.0 percent from the foul line.
Blessed with a 7-foot, 1-inch wingspan, Carey was at his best defensively around the basket. Being asked to move around on the perimeter in pick-and-roll situations could be an issue early on, especially when required to switch onto the ball-handler. Defensively he proved to be better when given the task of defending in the post, which is understandable given Carey’s size and strength.
7. Udoka Azubuike (Kansas): Azubuike is an interesting case when it comes to his age, as despite spending four seasons in college he won’t turn 21 until September. The 7-foot, 270-pound center was the best low-post scorer in college basketball last season, as he finished his senior campaign with a field goal percentage of 74.8 percent. Azubuike, whose 2018-19 season was cut to nine games due to a wrist injury, averaged 13.7 points, 10.5 rebounds, 0.9 assists and 2.6 blocks in 27.7 minutes per game.
According to hoop-math.com he made 85.2 percent of his shot attempts at the rim; if Azubuike has a foot in the paint the best defense in that spot is to give the foul (44.1 percent foul shooter). The size, strength and wingspan (7 feet, 7 inches) serve Azubuike well as a defender in the paint, and he made strides with regard to defending pick-and-roll situations as a senior. He’ll need to continue to polish up the footwork away from the basket, but Azubuike knows his strengths and sticks to them.
8. Reggie Perry (Mississippi State): Playing alongside Robert Woodard II, Perry made a significant leap with regard to production as a sophomore. The 6-foot-9, 250-pound big averaged 17.4 points, 10.1 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 0.8 steals and 1.2 blocks per game last season, shooting 50.0 percent from the field, 32.4 percent from three and 76.8 percent from the foul line. Perry attempted 2.3 3-pointers per game last season, but even with the low percentage he has good form and the free throw percentage indicates that with work he can improve as a perimeter shooter.
He’s strong as a rebounder on both ends, as evidenced by the overall average and his 3.1 offensive boards per game, and there’s also some rim protector potential. Defensively Perry moves well and can be used as either a power forward (against more rugged types) or center. Returning to school after testing the draft process can be a bit of a crap shoot, as it isn’t guaranteed that a player’s production/stock will improve. Numbers-wise the return to Starkville served Perry well; we’ll see if that also proves true regarding when his name is called come October.
9. Nick Richards (Kentucky): Speaking of players who benefitted from a return to school, Richards certainly fits that mold. After two nondescript seasons at Kentucky the 7-foot, 247-pound center from Jamaica made major improvements as a junior. Last season Richards started 30 of the 31 games in which he played, posting averages of 14.0 points, 7.8 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per contest, with shooting percentages of 64.2 percent from the field and 75.2 percent from the foul line.
Defensively Richards moves his feet well on the perimeter when hedging/switching in ball-screen situations, and he’s a more than credible rim protector as well. Avoiding silly fouls and continuing to develop as a low-post scoring option will be key for Richards when it comes to his longevity as a pro. He’ll certainly work at it; he just needs to land with a franchise that can remain patient while developing him.
10. Nathan Knight (William & Mary): The 6-foot-10, 253-pound Knight may not be a household name among casual basketball fans, but those who follow college basketball intently know who he is. As a senior the CAA Player of the Year accounted for 20.7 points, 10.5 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 0.8 steals, 1.5 blocks and 0.9 3-pointers per game, with shooting splits of 52.4 percent from the field, 30.5 percent from three and 77.3 percent from the foul line. The 3-point percentage wouldn’t be classified as great, but it’s worth noting that Knight made significant strides throughout the course of his career in that area.
After attempting a total of 89 in his first three seasons he put up 95 as a senior, and his percentages improved with each season as well. Add in the free throw percentage, and Knight has the look of a player who can be a credible face-up five. Defensively there is rim protector potential, as he blocked 2.3 shots per game as a junior and won CAA Defensive Player of the Year honors as a senior (1.5 bpg). Where he could run into trouble is being asked to defend in space, so even though there’s face-up five potential (with more work on the perimeter shot) on offense that isn’t the case for Knight defensively.